Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Clustering and Coping

I've been reviewing books here lately, as well as looking at trends and ideas. In this post I want to review just one chapter of a book. The book is called Extreme Democracy and it's a collection of articles, mostly about how new networking tools (using the internet) can change current politics. But there's a chapter in the book by Steven Johnson, author of the 2001 book Emergence, in which he clarifies his thoughts on the phenomena of emergent systems. It is available online on a website that is also called Extreme Democracy. Most of the book can be read there but I will only be concerned with Steven Johnson's chapter, entitled "Two ways to emerge, and how to tell the difference between them".

As anyone who reads this blog closely can tell, I've been taken by the ideas from complexity/self-organizing systems/emergent behavior and especially how they relate to social change. This chapter specifically talks about the relationship between emergence and political movements. Johnson points out how the new wave of protests, such as the 'battle for Seattle', which are organized around affinity groups, are nonhierarchal and bewildering to those who are looking for leaders. He writes: "To old school progressives, the Seattle protestors appeared to be headless, out of control, a swarm of small causes with no organizing principle--and to a certain extent they're right in their assessment. What they fail to recognize is that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you're trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you're better off becoming a distributed network yourself."

He also talks about how, in a very scary way, the same decentralized, grassroots bottom-up organizing is used by terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. (This has been noted by other people as well. There is a whole blog, Global Guerrillas, devoted to how networking, decentralization, self-organizing systems, and 'Resilient Communities', can be used by terrorist groups. A very good review of this blog is on the blog Worldchanging lamenting how these tools which can be used to create so much good, can also be used for violence--and looking at alternatives.)

Johnson goes on to say how, after watching several more positive uses of emergent behavior (such as,, and particularly the Howard Dean campaign for president), he began to realize that there were (at least) two different types of emergence.

He calls the first kind 'Clustering'. He talks about the slime mold--a strange creatures/creature that can go from being many 'free-floating cells' to becoming a sort of multicellular organism depending on the situation. He notes that the self-organizing systems researchers are, naturally, obsessed with this process, but many other beings also organize in a similar fashion, such as flocks of birds, columns of ants, etc. In none of these cases is there a leader, just a process where more and more of the individuals begin tending in a direction, eventually resulting in the group coming to a decision--sort of an instinctual democracy. Clustering is the natural world's version of consensus. The problem with clustering is that it's dependent on what scientists call positive feedback loops--more and more leads to more and more. It's great at creating a crowd, but lousy at dealing with changing situations.

He also talks about ongoing colonies of ants, bees, and termites, and how adaptive they are. Leave food in several different places and ants will organize the best way to collect the food. If you leave a different pattern of food, the ants will organize a different way of collecting it. He refers to this as 'Coping' behavior and points out how important this is to survival. It involves communication and a type of learning mechanism. Instead of simple positive (runaway) feedback, it involves homeostatic feedback, feedback on the state of the system, checks and balances.

Johnson ends his article by talking about what kind of 'emergent politics' is capable of self-regulation. Not political campaigns but local communities--looking at what we want and need and creating systems to develop and govern ourselves. He ends by suggesting we 'Think local, act local.' I'm still with the 'Think globally, act locally' folks, but I agree with many of his points. We need to create bottom up systems that are flexible and adaptive.

This all makes me think of one of my earliest arguments in this blog--from the post where I talked about the slogan: 'Agitate, Educate, Organize'. Agitating is pretty much Clustering--getting a crowd together and making progress through numbers. What Steven Johnson calls Coping is what I think of as Organizing--creating systems that are capable of dealing with changes. And the method systems use to deal with change is commonly referred to as learning--ie, we need to Educate.

Steven Johnson sees the end product as "community tools ... [that] help us locate and improve troubled schools, ... playgrounds, areas lacking crucial services..." and this is fine, but I also want tools that will help us build alternatives, decrease our dependence on oil and capitalism, make sure everyone is fed and taken care of, and increase fairness and diversity. Given that, I admire his conclusion: "That kind of politics--the kind built from the ground up, without leaders--is truly within our grasp right now, if we can just build the right tools." Let's hope we can do just that.

Quote of the day: "Clustering is, ultimately, a more dynamic version of the beautiful crystal shapes generated by snowflakes: amazing patterns generated out of simple rules. Coping systems, on the other hand, have the spontaneity and intelligence of life: they seem to learn from experience; they probe and explore the environments; they keep themselves healthy and well-fed in sometimes hostile conditions." - Steven Johnson
Word (or phrase) of the day: Emergent properties
Hero(es) of the day: Septima Poinsette Clark

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